Reading: always, always do the readings twice—once before lecture, and once again afterward. This will guarantee retention of information while also providing you an opportunity to catch what you might have missed the first time, with the hindsight afforded by attending lectures and seminars.

Formatting: written assignments must be double-spaced, in Times New Roman and 12-point font, with normal margins, and with numbered pages.

Comma splicing, e.g., “Amo argues that p, he defends this position by claiming that q”. These underlined sub-clauses should be two distinct sentences, separated by periods. Otherwise, they form a long-winded or ‘run-on’ sentence, impeding your reader’s ability to follow your train of thought. This is an extremely common error that is guaranteed to reduce your overall grade.

Missing punctuation, e.g., “Locke says in the Introduction that ‘p’ (citation) this means that q”. There needs to be a period (or some other appropriate punctuation) after the parenthetical citation, and the new sentence needs to be marked with a capital.

Missing apostrophes, e.g., “Descartes argument is question-begging”, “Spinoza claims that its not the case”. Apostrophes are needed to attribute something to someone (as in the first sentence) as well as for contractions (as in the second sentence).

Sentences beginning ungrammatically, e.g., “Conway states that p. Meaning that q”; or “Cavendish states that p. Which means that q”; or “Descartes states that p. Whereas Elisabeth states that q”. In these pairs, the second sentence begins ungrammatically. The two sentences in each pair should rather be one sentence, with “meaning that”, “which means”, and “whereas” each preceded by a comma. Otherwise, “Meaning that…” and “Which means that…” should be replaced with “This means that…”, and “Whereas…” should be replaced with “By contrast…”. In general, never begin a sentence with “Meaning that”, never begin a sentence with “Which” unless it is a question, and never begin a sentence with “Whereas” unless it will contrast two sub-clauses (e.g., “Whereas Descartes states that p, Locke states that q”). This is an extremely common error that is guaranteed to reduce your overall grade. When in doubt, ask yourself if the sentence you’re writing could be read grammatically as the first sentence of a paragraph.

Essay structure: students must follow the following format: (1) introduction, which must include your thesis statement, otherwise the reader will not know what you intend to prove in the essay; (2) reconstruction of a philosopher’s main argument, which is the most important part of the essay as well as the most onerous, since it requires both (a) textually supported definitions of all key terms and (b) textually supported explanations of all essential premises that compose the argument being reconstructed; (3) scrutinizing/testing the strength of the reconstructed main argument by considering an objection to it (whether yours or someone else’s, which, if the latter, must be cited (providing, of course, the three necessary citation elements)); (4) resolving the opposition between the reconstructed main argument and the considered objection by deciding for one or the other, which decision must be consistent with your thesis statement (i.e., if your thesis is that Descartes fails to prove that p, then you must decide for the objection that you consider against Descartes).

Thesis statement: this is a statement, located in the intro paragraph, of the position that you will defend in the paper, i.e., it is your answer to the essay question, e.g., “I will argue that Descartes successfully proves that p”. If this statement is missing from your introduction, your reader will not know which position you’ll be defending and so which response you’ll be offering to the essay question. This is an extremely common error that is guaranteed to reduce your overall grade.

Bibliography: students must provide a complete and consistent bibliography of all the scholarly sources that they use. These sources absolutely cannot include lectures notes, Wikipedia entries, Quora entries, or dictionary entries. Only ever cite peer-reviewed sources, which are restricted to books, journal articles, and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries. 

Citation: students must cite all quotations and paraphrases of referenced texts, as well as any attribution of specific claims to a philosopher. The three necessary elements of a citation are (1) the author’s last name, (2) the publication year, and (3) a page reference—otherwise it is incomplete, which will negatively affect your grade. Be sure to engage with and cite the assigned primary texts (by historical philosophers), not just secondary texts (by contemporary commentators on historical philosophers). And be sure to explain your citations, rather than leaving them hanging at the end of a paragraph: quotations cannot speak for themselves.

Definitions and explanations: students cannot assume that their reader knows either the definitions of key terms or the meanings of premises in an argument. These definitions and explanations must be provided in clear and thorough discussions, with textual support, in your written assignments. 

Reconstructing arguments: this is the most important, the most difficult, and therefore the largest part of your essay, in which you reconstruct the premises that lead to the conclusion of the argument whose strength you are assessing. Premises are the necessary steps that take us toward a conclusion, so you must ensure you provide all such steps.

Objection:  this must only ever be raised after reconstructing the argument in question, for it is meant to test the strength of an argument that has already been clearly reconstructed for the reader. Since objections need clear targets, they cannot precede the reconstruction of an argument, on pain of being uncharitable non-sequiturs. 

Proofread: before submitting your written work, proofread it to ensure that any errors in spelling, grammar, citation, referencing, or structure are corrected. A writing assignment is a formal piece of writing and therefore deserves a second look to ensure that it’s properly written.

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